Library exhibits Holocaust art books

Delicate paper and pressed flowers are a stark contrast with the stories children tell from the Terezin concentration camp.

June 18, 2012

Beautiful and poignant handmade books commemorating the Holocaust are on display at the Pacific University Library.

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In the 1940s, the Nazis in Czechoslovakia took over a historic fortress, called it a middle-class community and turned it into a concentration camp where some 150,000 people were imprisoned and thousands were murdered.

In the midst of this atrocity, though, something interesting happened: Many of the inmates of Terezin were artists and writers, scientists and scholars. Though they were captive, they insisted on continuing to educate the children among them.

Several years after the camp closed, some 4,000 children’s drawings, stories and journals were discovered, secreted away from destruction. Today, most of the drawings are at The Jewish Museum in Prague, and excerpts of children’s writing have been compiled into a book, I Never Saw Another Butterfly.

In the early 1990s, Doug Anderson used some of these recovered works as fodder for 10 handmade books commemorating the Holocaust. The books originally were commissioned for Min Zidell, as a gift from her daughter, and Zidell donated them to the University in 1999.

Right now, the books are on exhibit in the Pacific University Library, where limited audience interaction is allowed (meaning that by donning a pair of white cotton gloves provided by the Library, you can thumb through the delicate pages).

Frames for the books are wrought in brass. Dark metal depicts nooses, barbed wire and the Star of David, leaving little question as to the topic of the tomes. But the books themselves are a stark contrast. Dark on the outside, sometimes decorated with leather or metal, the insides are delicate, handmade paper. Careful handwriting repeats the statements of children in the camp, along with other pertinent quotes, such as passages from the Talmud (“Whoever saves one life saves the entire world”).

The children’s writing is a poignant juxtaposition. At times, they write of everyday life, of birds and flowers. At others, they write of fear, of people disappearing around them.

Quoted in at least two different places are the words of Edward R. Murrow, the American journalist who reported on what he saw at another concentration camp in 1945: “I pray you believe what I have said of Buchenwald. I reported what I saw and heard, but only part of it. For most of it, I have no words,” he said. “If I have offended you by this rather mild account of Buchenwald, I am not in the least sorry.”

For my part, I have few words to describe the books—I can write nothing so telling as the children themselves wrote from Terezin—other than to say that they are beautiful, in a horribly painful sort of way. They tell a story I have no words to convey, so I encourage you to take the time to visit the exhibit while it’s available.